I was fishing the South Platte River at Deckers recently, and as I was pulling my go-to 9’ 4wt out of its case, I realized that I had accidentally left my 7’ 6” Sage X in my truck from a past high country trip. The river was flowing at around 75 cfs that day, which was quite low for this section of water. Realizing that my 4wt was a bit overkill for the conditions, I instead grabbed my 3wt and set out for the day. What I experienced that day was enlightening, as that 3wt provided me a much more enjoyable day on the water than my 4wt ever could. I was able to present my fly more accurately and delicately, which allowed me to hook into more fish. Additionally, the smaller fish caught felt huge, and the bigger fish were more of a challenge to land. All in all, my experience that day was enhanced simply by changing which rod I fished.
The sport of fly fishing is a past time of experiences. There is no determining factor of a days success, or a measure of the value of time spent on the water. We all go “fishing” for our own reason’s and pursuits, and it is because of this fact that the sport of fly fishing offers such unique and one-of-a-kind experiences. Yet an often overlooked and misunderstood component of a good day on the water is the tool of the trade, a.k.a the fly rod.
As a purveyor of fly fishing goods and services for 2 decades, I’ve seen and experienced a great deal as it pertains to anglers and fly rods. And my general takeaway is that the fly rods can be confusing and overwhelming given the plethora of of fly rod actions, lengths, models and applications. So to better understand fly rods in general, I reached out to Peter Knox and David Lantz of Sage Fly Fishing, and asked for their take on fly rod action, how it influences the overall end application of a fly rod, and what this means for making your next fly rod purpose.
“At Sage, fly rod design is a combination of science and art. When we design a new fly rod our goal is to create the best possible fishing tool for the given application” explains Knox, Sage’s R&D Design Engineer. “This usually involves incorporating new and higher performing materials, which is where the science is applied. Once we have fully explored the science behind our new designs, we begin the art of crafting an action. While developing an action, we consider all the possible applications for the rod and create an action that is tailored to the variety of techniques, fly lines, and flies that the rod might be used with. The result is a fly rod that is constructed with the best available materials and designed to perform perfectly in target applications.”
Makes total sense right? Make fly rods for the desired end application. So how does one go about matching the action of a fly rod to the end application of the same fly rod? Knox explained “I would first think about what kind of flies you want to present and how you want to present them. Presenting a big/heavy fly, multiple flies, or flies in combination with an indicator, is best done with a more powerful rod. Presenting your fly at a further distance (or in windy conditions) will require higher line speed and is best performed with a more powerful rod. If fishing distances are going to be only short to medium, a less powerful rod will do a good job while feeling great and offering some other advantages like tippet protection. If tippet protection is critical, a rod with a softer tip or more moderate action should be considered. A fly is most accurately presented when a lot of line can be carried to get the fly within range of the target. A fast action rod will make it easier for an angler to carry the required amount of line in the air. The last factor is speed of delivery. Fishing dry flies to the bank out of a drift boat is one time when I like to have a fast action rod. This allows me to pick up up line and reposition it quicker than I could with a moderate action rod, which is a big advantage on when trying to hit lots of targets on a fast-moving river.”
But as a consumer, how are you supposed to know what fly rod was designed for your desired application? Knox went on to elaborate how Sage classifies and categorizes their fly rod offerings. “Our multi-application freshwater rods (X, PULSE, and FOUNDATION) have been designed to excel in a variety of fishing scenarios and strike a balance between many characteristics. On the other hand, our speciality rods (IGNITER, MOD, DART, ESN) are designed for just one or two applications. Our saltwater rods are a great example of our speciality rods. The SALT HD series of rods are designed primarily for sight casting and secondarily for blind casting. From a flats fishing standpoint, these saltwater rods are more powerful than a multi-application rod because they need to hold more line in the air for sight fishing, pick up long lengths of line from the water for second and third shots, throw high line speed loops through wind, and be exceptional at fighting powerful flats species.”
I then went on to ask Peter how does one know what the ideal application of a fly rod based on the action or rod weight? Knox replied “a lot of it comes down to knowledge and experience. I think manufacturers and retailers across the fly-fishing worlds could do a better job of helping anglers understand the strengths of various rods.”
So the question becomes, how can we do this better? How can fly shops, or any purveyor of fly rods be better at identifying a customer's needs, and matching them with the ideal tool of the trade? For this I moved over to speak with David Lantz, Marketing Manager for Sage Fly Fishing. Being a native of Bainbridge Island, WA David brings a unique perspective to the Sage brand, not just because of where he grew up, but also due to his father’s legendary tenure at Sage.
I asked David how fly shops can better sell fly rods, his response was insightful. “They key is making sure, as much as possible, that the customer leaves your store feeling confident that the rod you recommended is the BEST rod for them. Whether they purchased it at that moment or not. We don’t want the process to be ambiguous for either the retailer or the consumer. If the shop staff has a clearer understanding of the application, then naturally they’ll be better equipped to confidently relay that information on to the consumer.” I asked then how fly rod action fits into this equation. “Action is ambiguous. Application is not. Our dealers are experts in application for their regions. Imagine walking into a bike shop and all the staff could tell you about the difference between three bikes was the frame size, except those three bikes are really a road bike, mountain bike, and commuter bike, though it’s not being said. That’s action vs application.”
Lantz’s response struck a chord with me, as it personified the changes in how Trouts has stocked and sold fly rods through the years. For a time, we carried every fly rod, in every size option, or nearly every fishing application. While our inventory was impressive, our understanding of every application for every fly rod wasn’t, and for far too long rods sat gathering dust instead of moving out the door. What we realized was that we didn’t have customers looking for rods that we were stocking, not because they didn’t like the brand, but because they had no interest in fishing where these rods would have been applicable. I.e. we were stocking rods for fishing situations are customers were interested in.
At this point in the discussion Lantz made it clear that in most instances, application trumps action, so how does this then translate to “multi-application” rods and “speciality” rods? Lantz replied, “provide some direction to what they need to be looking at. Multi-Application rods are your “All Mountain” skis while speciality rods contain your “powder” and “park” skis, among others. Ideally “show” them this by breaking them out or labelling them. Don’t make anyone have to guess. An action first approach makes people have to guess. Not to mention action classifications vary all over the place because there are no standards between brands. And honestly, I’m not really sure what generic “actions” tell you any more about a rod. We want to put things in terms of what customers can actually understand. Application gets you much closer to that than action.”
This brings me back to my experience noted at the beginning to this article. I was left with a choice of two fast action rods, both of which were capable of meeting the demands of the conditions I was facing. But one was designed to be a “multi-application” rod, and one was designed specifically for the very conditions and applications I was facing that day. Anglers seem determined to find that one fly rod that can do everything, and seem unaware of how certain days necessitate a different fly rod. Lantz interjected, “any angler who gets out on varied water types can tell you a single 5wt doesn’t cover it all. Yes, if you only have a choice of one rod, the 9’ 5wt gets you closest but it’s really more of a “jack of all trades” than a “master of one”. Having the appropriate rod for the water type or application your fishing makes all the difference in fun, enjoyment, and effectiveness. Dragging fish in or spooking fish when smashing the presentation of the fly by using an ultra-aggressive 6wt on a spring creek is not an ideal use of your tool. Yes, you can still catch fish. But is that really the best experience you could be having? Just like skis - yes, you can still get down groomers on a 132 underfoot powder ski. But is that the best tool for the experience? Clearly not. And fly fishing has more varied environments than ski. One can get it done, yes, but it might not be the best tool for the job and a lot less fun.“
For far too long, the “fly rod review” and ever pleasing “fly rod shootout” have been the industry standard for comparing and selecting fly rods. But this content does nothing more than to reward the author, and mislead the end consumer. Fly rods are a very personal piece of gear, as what one angler likes could be very different the another’s. A “5 Weight Fly Rod Shootout”, when using the same fly line for every rod, is the equivalent of a ski or snowboard review where the user tests every ski/snowboard on the same run, under the same conditions. End result, you learn nothing about what one of these tools are really meant to do, and instead identify what fly rod is best for the fly line being used.
There are just far too many manufacturers, rod models, actions and variations in fly rods to simply purchase off of rod action alone. It has been my experience and one that has been reinforced by our partners at Sage, that the number one determining factor in choosing a fly rod is not action, but instead application. So whether you’re in the market for a new fly rod today, or it’s something that you’re looking into for the coming season, start thinking more about where and how you want to use the fly rod, as this will help ensure you’ll get a tool of the trade that truly meets your needs.